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Clear and Distinct Ideas

Gabriel Roberts

Learning to Write Badly
Michael Billig
Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences
Cambridge University Press, 2013
£14.99 (paperback)
240 pages
ISBN: 9781107676985

Michael Billig is a professor of the social sciences at the University of Loughborough with a reputation for unpretentious thinking. In this chatty yet closely-argued book, he sets out to improve writing in the social sciences by castigating its most heinous features. The tone is unashamedly critical, and lapses at times into hand-wringing despair, but the moral of the book—that the big concepts which many social scientists are using are poorly equipped for describing what people do—is supported by a number of surprisingly apposite examples.

The hand-wringing may give the impression that this is nothing more than a jeremiad against technical academic writing or a ‘resistance to theory’ of the kind caricatured by Paul de Man. But Billig is aware that technical writing is appropriate in some contexts, that technical and ordinary languages are not discrete, and that ordinary language can encode ideologies which only technical language can expose. His point is simply that the style of writing which predominates in the social sciences is sometimes less suited to the purposes of the social sciences than writing which is grounded in the vast stock of concepts and phrases whose use is not restricted to speakers or writers belonging to particular specialist groups.

Take the heavy use of nouns. When social scientists invent things, they tend to give them names containing few verbs, adjectives, or prepositions compared to the number of nouns. Examples include the Behaviour Exchange Systems Training devised to help parents deal with adolescents who might be abusing substances, the Picture Exchange Communication System used in the treatment of autism, and the Leadership Categorization Theory which describes how leaders are categorised by their followers. Names like these are handily concise (“Leadership Categorization Theory” contains fewer words than “the theory of how leaders are categorised as leaders by their followers”) and they have an air of authority. But they are also vague and presuppose the existence of the things which they purport to explain. Given only its title, “Leadership Categorization Theory” might be about how leaders categorise things or how they are categorised by other people; and it might be a theory (in the sense of an hypothesis) that leaders are categorised as leaders by their followers, or a theory (in the sense of an explanation) of how this categorisation comes about (the hypothesis having been already proved). Vagueness of this kind, Billig suggests, is typical of noun-heavy names.

The reliance on nouns is also problematic because the meanings of many of the abstract nouns favoured by social scientists are susceptible to change. Billig gives the wonderful example of “the ideational metafunction” [1], a term coined by the linguist Michael Halliday to describe how language connects logic with experience. For Halliday, the term described a general function of language, rather than one which could be identified in particular cases, and was defined in contrast to two other metafunctions, the textual and the interpersonal. But the term has not always been used in this sense. In a study of undergraduate essay writing, the social scientists Michael Prosser and Carolyn Webb used the term to refer to “meaning in the way that it is usually thought of: as content” and they were followed by the academic language expert Sue Starfield, who identified “the use of the ideational metafunction” as a distinguishing feature of good social scientific essays. Changes of this kind are common, Billig suggests, because writers use abstract nouns to make themselves sound important, rather than to make their meanings clear. Far from using “the ideational metafunction” to refer to anything linguistically precise, Prossser, Webb, and Starfield used it where a simple term like “content” would have sufficed.

The situation is compounded by the fact that many of the abstract nouns which social scientists use lack corresponding verbs, which makes it difficult for readers to translate sentences which contain these nouns into sentences about people doing things. Billig gives the examples of “massification” and “mediatization”, the processes by which societies come to operate on a massive scale and by which the media come to control things. These processes do not come about because people “massify” or “mediatize”: massification simply happens and mediatization is performed by the media, here conceived as an institution rather than as a group of individuals.

But the payload of Billig’s criticism is directed against unpopulated writing, in which sentences are phrased in the passive voice or human actions are ascribed to things. The passive voice is not always a problem (in the natural sciences, it serves the useful function of directing attention away from experimenters and towards the experiments themselves), but its use in the social sciences can sometimes result in the omission of important information. Billig gives the example of an experiment in social psychology in which white Australians were asked to fill out a questionnaire under supervised conditions about their attitudes towards aboriginal Australians. By using the passive voice in their report of the experiment, the experimenters omitted to specify whether the supervisors were white or aboriginal, even though this may have been a factor in how the participants answered the questionnaire.

Something similar obtains with respect to the ascription of human actions to things. In some cases, this is harmless. When scientists write about particles being “attracted” and “repelled”, they are using a metaphor and nobody misunderstands what they mean. In other cases, it serves more sinister ends. When right-wing economists describe economic concepts such as market forces “dictating”, “demanding”, and “forbidding” human behaviour, they do so to exert a surreptitious influence over their readers. Social scientists use the same technique when they describe their favourite theoretical concepts and approaches. Billig cites Prosser and Webb describing how phenomenography [2] “favours a dynamic approach” and “provides an opportunity to develop a coherent understanding.” What is lacking in these cases, Billig suggests, is a clear statement of who does what to whom and why.

Most worrying, from Billig’s perspective, is that social scientists who write about these topics are guilty of the mistakes which they condemn. Though many social scientists write about “reification”, they typically define it as “the process by which abstract concepts are treated as if they’re real” or “the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things”, in each case treating reification as though it were something which simply happens, rather than something which people actually do. In the same vein, writers in the field of Critical Discourse Analysis routinely identify the heavy use of nouns and passive constructions as features of writing designed to convey authority (e.g. “You are requested not to walk on the grass” [passive] and “Essay-submission deadline 17:00” [heavy use of nouns]) while coining abstract nouns such as “nominalization” and “passivization” and writing passive sentences such as “nominalization can depersonalize”. It is not enough to identify bad writing, Billig suggests. One must also learn to write the social sciences in a new, more ordinary way.

If this book has a weakness, it is that Billig underestimates the problem. The question underlying many of the issues which he addresses is whether we should describe human behaviour using a traditional vocabulary of actions, beliefs, reasons, desires, and the rest of it or whether we should write, on an individual level, of the neurological processes which cause human behaviour and, on the collective level, of impersonal processes such as massification. This question is not confined to the social sciences, but extends into the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of action, and the associated vulgar notion that humans are not really active, but are controlled by genes, memes, evolutionary and market forces, and so on, is ubiquitous in modern culture. Billig is to be congratulated on chasing the implications of this notion into the fine details of academic prose, but any suggestion that bad writing can be countered solely through linguistic criticism is probably a simplification.

However, there is also another sense in which Billig underestimates the problem, and one which reflects very positively on him. Though his account is confined to the social sciences, there are surely other fields of academia which would benefit from similar treatment. It is ironic that while Billig is sceptical about academic trends and fashions, his ideas will have to be wildly popular if academics are going to learn to write well.

Gabriel Roberts [3] is a final-year DPhil in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.